How does music get front-row tickets to the revolution?
From coded spiritual songs that guided slaves along the Underground Railroad to Ukrainian folk songs opposing Russian invasion, music has played a role in uniting people and inspiring protest. Dr. Lindsay Michie saw this firsthand when she was a photojournalist in South Africa during the fall of apartheid nearly 30 years ago. This helped inspire a class that she’s offering to first-year University of Lynchburg students in Fall 2019.
Dr. Michie and Christine Moore, a student who has taken the music-and-revolution class before, sat down with Justin Cummings to talk about the power of music to inspire social change.
You also can listen to many of the songs referenced in this podcast in a Spotify playlist here.
Transcript, A Smarter U, Episode 2
Justin Cummings: Welcome to “A Smarter U,” a University of Lynchburg podcast. Today we’re going to be taking a closer listen to music and asking how a song can start a revolution. I’m Justin Cummings, and today I’m joined by professor of history Dr. Lindsay Michie, and one of her students, Christine Moore.
So today we’re going to be getting into, like I said, how music can start a revolution, but before we really dive into that, Dr. Michie, what kind of music do you listen to?
Lindsay Michie: Well, I grew up listening to all kinds of different music. I really liked listening to a R&B and soul and rock and pop, but also jazz and classical. But in the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve been listening a lot to hip hop and rap music. Mostly the woke, though, not the trap.
Justin Cummings: What made you decide to start doing research? Not just listening to him enjoying music, but actually doing some research on it and then teaching about it?
Lindsay Michie: I lived in South Africa for a while, and when I was teaching over there, I was also working as a photojournalist. I was covering a lot of events and demonstrations during a time that apartheid was ending. So there was a lot of revolution in the air and I noticed that music kind of punctuated every single event that happened. And it sort of got into my head how important music is as an element in any kind of resistance movement.
Justin Cummings: So you’re teaching a class this upcoming fall about this specifically for first year students. Why do you think this is a good class for first year students?
Lindsay Michie: Well this class is part of the new Dell program, the general education program that we’re starting this year. And it’s part of something called the integrative seminar series. These are seminars that introduce the topic that’s not necessarily wedded to one discipline like history or English, but gets students thinking about a topic on a different level. So the topic of mine is, “Can music start a revolution?” It takes into consideration music and lyrics and history and politics and social movements, and so it’s a way to sort of listen to music in a different way.
Justin Cummings: You already taught a very similar class as an upper level class?
Lindsay Michie : Yes.
Justin Cummings: And Christine, you took that class, correct?
Christine Moore: Yes.
Justin Cummings: So although your professor’s sitting right next to you, what did you think of this class when you took it? Be as honest as you can.
Christine Moore: It is the best class that I’ve taken so far at Lynchburg. It’s something that I recommend to anyone that would be willing to take it. I think there’s a stigma against history, it’s just the facts and it tells about our past and that’s all it is, whereas this takes a different look at it. Because music is something that we listen to. We can listen to music from the ’60s, we can listen to music that was released last week, and they have different meanings to it. And it kind of brings the history to light in a pop culture kind of way.
Justin Cummings: So Dr. Michie, what can music actually do to start a revolution? I know we’re going to get into this more as we get into the specific songs, but overall, what makes it a powerful tool?
Lindsay Michie: Well, it’s something that unites people, I think, in a way that maybe a political speech or reading a pamphlet may not. Everybody has an opinion about music. Everyone feels strongly in some way or another and they respond well to music. I think it was a resistance activist in South Africa who said, “I could give you a whole long political speech on why apartheid in South Africa is so oppressive and wrong, but if I could start singing a song about it, people respond to that more readily and they’re like, ‘yes, I get you, death unto apartheid.’”
Justin Cummings: So Christina, I’m gonna throw you in the hot seat here for a second, keeping in mind the person that gave you this assignment is sitting right next to you: What are the ways that music can start a revolution?
Christine Moore: So there are multiple ways. Dr. Michie kind of covered one about uniting the people, but there are others like telling a story, calling to action, the hidden message, preserving their identity, and causing chaos.
Justin Cummings: All right, so we’re gonna kind of go through these one by one and we’re going to look at what these actually mean and how this affects the way that we listen to music. So let’s start with the first one: Tell a story. That’s pretty obvious but, just in case that’s not what it sounds like, Christine, can you kind of tell me what that means?
Christine Moore: Telling a story. As you said, it’s kind of self explanatory. It can pick up a point in time that the singer has experienced something, or the gist of a situation as a whole. So like the song that kind of sticks out for telling the story is “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.
Lindsay Michie: It was written by Abel Meeropol. And he had seen a photo of a lynching at his time, a lynching that had just happened. It so disturbed him that he wrote a poem about it. Then you put it to music and then he brought it to Billie Holiday and she was determined to sing it.
Justin Cummings: This is probably the only one I can chime in the most because I wrote a paper on this, actually the original poem, for a literature class I took, and this is a hard listen. This song is not pleasant. I mean, it’s beautiful song, but the lyrics are very, very unpleasant. What about that do you think is going to actually make a change? What about the fact that it’s not sugarcoating anything? Why do we need the hard truth?
Christine Moore: Like you mentioned, it’s hard to listen to. There’s a point where she talks about blood dripping on the leaves. It invokes a reaction. You know, you see these things during the time period, like seeing lynchings, and you know it’s happening, and it’s kind of like the fear that it might be you next, but also the anger of this shouldn’t be happening. It kind of strikes a chord. People would be like, well I want to do something about it.
Lindsay Michie: Then apparently whenever she sang it — she had to fight to sing it at popular clubs where they didn’t want to hear something like that — they would lower the lights. They would say, “No applause. ” There were certain rules as to how it was sung and it would always be at the very end of her set.
Justin Cummings: What’s so amazing, just the live aspect of that as well. You know, it’s not just the song, it’s the presentation. We see presentation more today I guess in the music video. The other songs that we’re talking about from this category, if they don’t have one, they are at least from the era of the music video. So you want to talk about “Pain” by Tupac?
Lindsay Michie: Yes, this is one of my favorite songs by Tupac and it’s also telling a story. And when he released it, it was a time when a lot of stories were coming out about what life was like. Life to a lot of people, as they would describe it, “in the hood,” or in these projects, was like a war zone basically. And so it was an explanation, kind of like what the N.W.A. argued as well, “This is what our life is like,” basically. “And so you can call us hoods, you can call us thugs, you can call us criminals, but we’re a product of how we’ve been made to live and we’re in pain.”
Justin Cummings: What do you think is important about that? I think both of these examples are kind of bringing to light something a lot of people would want to ignore. Do you think it’s important that everyone hears these kinds of stories or do you think it’s more important for the people who maybe identify with these stories?
Christine Moore: I think it’s both sides. I think it’s a way for the artists to tell the story and get their own side, like personal side of it out. But it’s also on the other side with like Tupac or with N.W.A., it’s telling the truth behind things because in the media you can see it, you can see like the police having raids or you can see the lynchings, but they’re telling their truth of the story.
Justin Cummings: So what was the second message again that can be spread through music?
Christine Moore: A call to action.
Justin Cummings: What do you mean by that?
Christine Moore: It’s calling either the people, or the government, or people that can get things done to do something about the wrongs that are happening.
Justin Cummings: Okay. And what song are we looking at for this particular message, Dr. Michie?
Lindsay Michie: This is a song called “Free Nelson Mandela” that was released in the 1980s by a British group called the Specials. It was just about the time that there was a kind of international attention and pressure being put on South Africa through boycotts and through disinvestment. A lot of it centered around the idea of letting the man who sort of symbolized and represented the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, setting him free from prison. And it was a way not only of calling on action, because it wasn’t like the apartheid government would hear them saying this and say, “Oh, okay, we’ll let him go,” but it was a way of bringing awareness to people who may not know about Nelson Mandela or what he represented and increase that pressure on the government so that eventually they did free Nelson Mandela. And not to say that the song —
Justin Cummings: But do you think the song — like you said, it was recorded by a British group — do you think it had more impact on other nations, them being aware of what was happening in South Africa, or had more of an impact in South Africa by the people hearing it, and not necessarily the government?
Lindsay Michie: Well, at that time there was a great amount of censorship, so it would often be hard for people in South Africa to hear that song. But it would have been an act of revolution if they could, if they got hold of it and listen to it. So I would say in many ways it was more impactful in getting people from other countries to put pressure on South Africa.
Christine Moore: And I think something that the Specials do with it to get the song heard is when you listen to it, it’s very catchy. It makes me want to dance.
Justin Cummings: It’s a lot more pleasant to hear.
Christine Moore: Yeah. And so at first it’ll catch someone’s ear cause it’s like, “Oh look, it has a nice beat.” It’s good. But then when you take it to the next step, and you actually listen to the lyrics, it calls for his release, and [talks about] how he’s been in prison for 20 years, and things like that. So it gets a little bit deeper the more you look into it.
Justin Cummings: What other kinds of songs do this, this kind of call to action? I can think of a couple, but what you teach the class, what else would you look at in the class setting?
Lindsay Michie: We’ll be talking about some of the civil rights anthems and a lot of them would be a call to action as well, and maybe a call to action on the people as well as the call to action on the government.
Christine Moore: One I can think about is with the Vietnam War, the hippies had a hand in how people reacted to it with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” It’s saying, “Look around, look what’s happening.” The song originally was written in response to the curfew riots that were happening in California. The hippies were out doing drugs or drinking alcohol and so they were trying to have a curfew implemented so they couldn’t be out doing things. But if you just listen to the lyrics, it talks about, like, you need to stop and look around to what’s happening, and that’s calling to action to like actually see what’s going on around.
Lindsay Michie: I think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” is kind of like that too, even though it’s kind of telling a story, but it’s saying we need to do something about this too.
Justin Cummings: I feel like there’s a lot that are more, I guess, more rhetorical, whereas “Free Nelson Mandela” is very direct. “Fight the Power,” another very direct —
Lindsay Michie: That’s a great one.
Justin Cummings: — where something like”Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan would be a lot more rhetorical, asking a question and you’re supposed to put it together that you should do something.
Lindsay Michie: Yeah. I think “Public Enemy” is a great example of that time for music.
Christine Moore: With Spike Lee being back in the public spotlight, “Do the Right Thing” is on my mind, and that movie definitely was a call to action, and the music in that movie was a call to action. So the third way that you said music can start a revolution is the hidden message. The song you chose for this is one I’d never heard. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Lindsay Michie: Well, it’s a song by probably one of the most famous Chinese rock stars called Cui Jian. He’s always had a difficult position because in China, you’ve got to sort of tread that thin line between protesting, but then not getting arrested or censored, cracked down on. And so a lot of his songs have double meanings or hidden meanings. That’s often a way that resistance movements operate when they know that if they say too much, then they can be shut down. They give a message in code. And this particular one is “A Piece of Red Cloth,” and he always wears a kind of blindfold of red cloth around his eyes when he sings this song. So it could have different meanings, like it could just mean that red is a symbol for romance in China, but it also is a symbol for the Communist party authority, and a sort of like he’s representing them being blinded or shutdown by the government.
Christine Moore: It’s like if he’s ever asked by, he can be like, “Oh, you know, I’m being blindfolded by love, and being shackled by love,” but you kind of know what’s going on there.
Lindsay Michie: And there’s a great example in South Africa where often they would sing in their own language and so the white authorities would hear them singing a happy song, and they clap along and they didn’t know that the Africans were singing, “We will kill you, we will shoot you.”
Justin Cummings: It got a English version at one point, but when you say that, all I can think is “99 Luftballons,” a song about mutually assured destruction of nuclear war, but being sung in German, you hear and you’re like, “Oh, yay, it’s boppy, it’s catchy,” and it’s really depressing, actually, about, like, we’re all going to die. Like the nuclear cold war crisis.
Do you think that singing in your own language, in this era now of Google translate, has kind of lost some of its power?
Christine Moore: With some of the songs with the hidden message, like Lucky Dube’s “Slave,” in the song, he’ll sing it as like he’s a slave to alcohol and how he’s an alcoholic. So on a recording it’s said one way, but when it’s in person, they switch it to another way. So in person, I guess you could try to Google translate it but it’s a little harder.
Justin Cummings: They can, they can have a live version and a recorded version. They can still get around that. People will always outsmart whatever system’s trying to stop them. That’s just the way that it works.
Lindsay Michie: And Lucky Dube’s song is a great example. It sounds so similar because he sings in the lyrics, “I’m a liquor slave,” but in live he was singing, “I’m a legal slave,” and so you’d have to really listen to catch that. But all his fans would sing “legal slave.” So they were in on it.
Justin Cummings: Do you think that that’s kind of what you have to do now, is kind of that word of mouth, like it seems so archaic now, “Oh, we’re going to spread a message of word of mouth,” as opposed to say, on the internet. Do you that’s kind of what we’ve gone back to now, with the era of concerts and with the era of a live interpretation instead of the recorded?
Lindsay Michie: Well, I think it’s safer because just about anything you do, even if you think you’re not being recorded, you might be. What do you think Christine?
Christine Moore: I think the word of mouth is a little more powerful because I think it’s something that’s more empowering, where if you’re told that this is going on and then you take the information and you pass it on, it kind of builds that connection more. Whereas when it’s over text or over social media platforms, they kept the message of the whole thing and the strength of it kind of can get lost.
Justin Cummings: Let’s talk about the next way that music can start a revolution. Uniting people. I don’t want to say it’s a more peaceful one, but it is going to be a little more hopeful. What do you think about that, Dr. Michie? You think it’s more hopeful angle, or do you think there’s still a lot of anger to it?
Lindsay Michie: So often with these songs, it’s the context that they were sung in. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” started out as a spiritual and then it was taught by Reverend Alvin Abernathy at a mass meeting in Georgia in the 1960s. It took off and it was used in all the demonstrations. One of the ways that it’s uniting is in the face of the violence that comes at the demonstrators. They would often change the lyrics, like, “Ain’t gonna let no policeman turn me around, ain’t going to let no racism turn me around.” And so the singing was threatening to the authorities. They would lock them up in jail and say, “Sing your protest songs now,” but they would continue to sing, even in prison. So the lyrics themselves are pretty straightforward, but the context that it was used in was pretty aggressive.
Christine Moore: Another spiritual that was also used during the Civil Rights movement in America is “We Shall Overcome,” which was used as like a gospel song, and when they started doing their marches or their sit-ins and things like things like that, they would sing this. Since it was a gospel song, almost everyone already knew at least the melody to it. And then if the words changed, they just went along with it. It was uniting just not for the marches, but also, President Johnson, in one of his speeches to Congress, he says, “We shall overcome this.” And actually, in Martin Luther King’s last sermon that he gave before he was killed, he talks about how he was singing this and he was going to sing this song into glory. So even away from like the protest side of things in church or in government, this was being used as a way to unite the people behind the fight.
Justin Cummings: So that’s actually a really interesting angle you bring up: the lyrics being taken out of the song context and then being repurposed into either a motto or just a standalone saying. What do you think is the power of the lyrics being taken away from the song? Do you think that it loses meaning being separated from the song, or do you think it almost gained strength?
Lindsay Michie: If I understand the question right, it is, do the lyrics themselves stand on their own, no matter what the context where you use them?
Justin Cummings: Which would be more powerful? Hearing the song “We Shall Overcome,” or someone like Reverend King using that in his sermon, just that one phrase, kind of an allusion to the song?
Lindsay Michie: The song is definitely powerful and then him using it adds to the power. If no one knew the context of what he was saying, it wouldn’t be so powerful. But they’re already used to singing that song and then they hear him sing it, and then they hear the president saying it, “We shall overcome.” Then it becomes even more powerful.
Justin Cummings: Has there been any kind of, I guess, modern comparison to that? So since the 2000s, or is that just not something that’s really happened again since?
Lindsay Michie: The use of song lyrics? I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Justin Cummings: Has a president especially? Like have you we seen that again? I’m sure other people have used song lyrics.
Lindsay Michie: One thing that was interesting that changed was when Obama ran for president. Until that time, a lot of the lyrics and music of hip hop and rap was considered bad. Tipper Gore launched a crusade against rap and hip hop music. But now you have a candidate who’s embracing it and not just for political reasons, but because he actually genuinely likes it. And sometimes you would hear him referencing songs, like he talks about “brushing the dirt off his shoulder,” referencing Jay-Z. So that’s something that really changed in many ways, the public discussion and view of rap and hip hop music. It became a sort of an accepted part of our culture in many ways.
Justin Cummings: I believe he became the first president to actually appear on a hip hop album when he appeared on one of the Hamilton Broadway remix albums reciting George Washington’s inauguration speech. It’s really come full circle now in that you started off just referencing lyrics and now like he’s appearing in a song. The song itself isn’t protest per se, but there’s definitely a meaning there, hearing a modern president speak the words of the first president.
Christine Moore: I was actually going to bring that point up. Like he had the cast of Hamilton come in to the White House and sing some of their songs for high school students, and previous presidents didn’t do that, especially with “Hamilton,” being more rap and hip hop on a Broadway side. Broadway is known for “Phantom of the Opera” and things like that. They were showing that there’s more to it.
Justin Cummings: It fits with uniting because there was the live instance where Mike Pence was at the show and the cast did an extra message of uniting, of, “Mr. Vice President, we hope that you’ve learned from this, this idea of America and what it means to be in America, and the holistic sense of America,” and kind of that uniting aspect.
Let’s talk about the next aspect, which is preserving identity. What song are we looking at for this?
Lindsay Michie: This is a song called “Pure Capture.” It’s a Ukrainian song. It’s an old folk song. The idea behind this aspect of protest music is that oftentimes and in times of oppression, somebody’s identity gets erased or censored or disappears. Native Americans, for example, feel like they’re losing their culture and their heritage. And so, this particular song is sort of a restatement of that in the face of oppression, especially from Russia trying to take over the Ukraine and influencing the leader at that time of Ukraine. I’ll let Christine tell the story of how, you know, she first heard it in class.
Christine Moore: 25: 22The recording that we used in class was a video of a contestant from “The Voice” in the Ukraine. So she comes out with her instrument. Everyone knows “The Voice,” the judges’ backs are to the performer, but she starts singing and you can see as the cameras pan around to the audience and the judges, everyone has this kind of mournful look on their faces and they’re also a little bit shocked that she chose to perform this song.
And then there becomes a point where the entire audience just stands and one of the judges gets tears in her eyes and stands with the crowd and a couple of the other judges. They just all stood there in peace listening to the song. Just watching the video itself and seeing how much of an effect it had on people there was kind of breathtaking and I didn’t know what the story was going into it or anything like that, but I could tell like it meant a lot to them.
Justin Cummings: I think It’s one of those things that you wouldn’t expect. You know, we tune into “The Voice” and I’ve seen some of the foreign versions of The Voice. I think I’ve seen a little bit of the Russian, and it’s a lot of what you’re going to get in the American version. You’re still gonna get songs like, I’ve heard “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin on the Russian version of The Voice. Like it’s still about the singing and you don’t expect to hear something so poignant and so I guess at that case politically charged on a competition like this, and I think there’s a certain credence to that Dr. Michie, is there a reason that you chose that version of the song to play over any other?
Lindsay Michie: There were several versions that we heard in the class. We actually had a guest speaker, Dr. Kara Dean came in and talked about this, and she gave us a couple versions and another song that was about the mind and massacre, which was a student uprising. But this, I think particularly was touching to the students in the class. I may be wrong, but I think that’s the case.
Justin Cummings: Well, let’s move into the final message. A lot less peaceful and tranquil: causing chaos. What do you mean by that?
Lindsay Michie: Oh, well, this is a kind of music and it has to do with the fact that every generation is going to rebel against a previous generation and usually at the part of the rebellion is doing something to shock or upset the previous generation. And I think the pumk generation in particular was especially talented and shocking and horrifying the previous generation. But a lot of it was in disillusionment with the previous generation and with their economic situation and unemployment, especially in the United Kingdom. But also part of the rebellion was we’re not going to be slick musicians. We don’t know how to play an instrument. We’re going to just get up and shout and perform and get people excited. And that’s pretty much what they did.
Justin Cummings: Can you give me a year for this?
Lindsay Michie: It is in the late seventies.
Justin Cummings: So this was after the clean cuttness of the Beatles, after that…
Lindsay Michie: Well that was shocking at one point too.
Justin Cummings: That’s stunning to me, an era where the Beatles were shocking. So what do you think is kind of the importance of the punk movement in Britain then these songs in particular? Why basically is this all worth looking at? Why is the punk movement and songs like this worth studying?
Christine Moore: I didn’t really know much about the punk movement, so it was interesting for me to study and learn about it because it was very much underground, literally and figuratively. They did this not just out in the open as a “screw you” to the past generation. They let little messages out that they were going to do something downstairs somewhere in a bar, or something like that. And then they would start performing and the crowd would just turn into a mosh pit. There was fighting and they were like where you’ve seen the crowds move as a group. The same is what happened with these people. There’s a quote by one of the artists that says “we were doing this as a rebellion. We didn’t care what anyone thought and we were just doing it.” So their main point wasn’t to become popular and for their songs to be heard it was really just as like, “we’re doing our own thing. We don’t care what anyone says.”
Justin Cummings: So what song in particular from this movement are we listening to today?
Lindsay Michie: Well, the most famous one is “Anarchy in the UK,” where it’s basically the Sex Pistols screaming, “I am an anarchist, I’m an antichrist,” in the face of so many established, middle class, older generation. And I was going to say they really didn’t care what their audience thought. Sometimes they would spit on their audience, you know, as part of their performance. It was really all about just making this incredibly anarchic statement about themselves and about music. Everything fell apart for them once they started to become popular and famous.
Justin Cummings: Speaking of anarchists that fell apart once they become popular and famous, what do you think is kind of the influence of this song on, like, a Nirvana, per se.
Lindsay Michie: Oh, definitely. A lot of later artists were definitely influenced by the punk movement, including Green Day, sort of like a more modern version of what they are doing. More toned down in many ways but you know, later on Joe Strummer, the Clash, for example, they went on to become a fairly successful group, but he did say, you know, “I can’t believe we became the people we tried to destroy.” That’s one of the key weapons, I think of an oppressive, or what’s seen as an oppressive or regular government or society, is they can mainstream music so that it becomes so popular that it loses its power.
Justin Cummings: So let’s move from discussing particular songs you are teaching in class on this. Why is this something important for the average person to learn about and to know? We don’t live in ’70s England, we don’t live in apartheid South Africa. We don’t live in communist China. Why is it important for the average student in America to be aware of these ideas and the ways that music can influence?
Lindsay Michie: I think I’ll let Christine answer that question.
Justin Cummings: I agree.
Christine Moore: A lot of the things that we talk about our big movements like the civil rights movement or the apartheid that you mentioned, but if you really listened to lyrics, sometimes they’re just talking about things going on currently. So, granted it’s not right now, but there’s songs about with rap, with the N.W.A or Kendrick Lamar that talk about issues that happened 20 years ago, when we were being born. They’re not so far away and that the individual person has a say in what’s going on.
Justin Cummings: Right.
Lindsay Michie: And I’m really glad she brought up Kendrick Lamar because he is sort of like, in many ways the modern voice of what we’re talking about of a kind of many of these things that call to action at telling the story. Many people are fans of Kendrick Lamar, so he has a kind of uniting aspect to him.
Christine Moore: J. Cole released an album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” and there’s a song off of it “Neighbors” where he talks about how his neighbors think he’s selling dope when he’s supposedly just making an album with his friends and his record to release an album. But because there’s so many people in and out, they thought that he was a drug dealer just based off of the people he had people in and out of his house.
Justin Cummings: We’re kind of the assumptions that we make. Yeah.
Lindsay Michie: Yeah. That’s one of the songs that was brought up in our class and it’s sort of one of those songs where people listen to it and they don’t think really about what the lyrics are. But then when you start by taking a class like this you’re thinking more about music. This way, you start listening to the lyrics and you start realizing, oh, this is about, you know, racial profiling.
Justin Cummings: Right, So thank you both so much for being here today.
Christine Moore: Yes, thank you for having us.
Lindsay Michie: Thanks.
Justin Cummings: And thank you everyone at home for listening and we will see you guys next time. Bye.